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Florida — not a pretty picture

Tampa Bay Times reporter Craig Pittman is blogging about Florida for Slate for the month of July. So far he's written about mermaids who are state employees and giant snails that eat houses. This is what he wrote for Slate about the wackiness of Florida politics.

As you drive toward downtown Tallahassee, Florida's state Capitol Building rises boldly from the horizon. First you see the 22-story executive branch building, known locally as the "Tower of Power," bluntly thrusting itself toward the sky. As you get closer you see that the tower is flanked by the domes of the House and Senate.

A few years ago an online poll overwhelmingly selected it as the most phallic building in the world.

There is no sign inside the Capitol announcing that honor. However, on the first floor, near the gift shop, is a sign that what the building looks like on the outside does reflect the character of the politicians on the inside. Mounted on the wall is a bronze plaque that says, "This plaque is dedicated to Senator Lee Weissenborn whose valiant effort to move the Capitol to Orlando was the prime motivation for the construction of this building."

Tallahassee has been Florida's capital city since the 1820s, when the few people who lived in the state mostly lived in North Florida. By the 1960s, what's now known as the Old Capitol Building — built in 1845, the year of statehood — had become too cramped and archaic to be used anymore. That gave Weissenborn the chance to argue that Orlando was closer to the state's modern center of population, and thus the capital should be relocated there. Sentiment, tradition and cold hard cash kept it where it had always been. What politician really wants to be close to "the people"? Ick.

Every state has sleazy politicians, but Florida's pols generally take the cake — as well as the knife, the plate, and all the candles. There was the state Senate president who slipped millions into the budget for a football stadium at a university that had no football team. He later was convicted of paying off another politician with money stuffed into a cooking pot. Then there was the House speaker whose father, a county commissioner, died of a heart attack after being arrested on charges of hiring a hit man to get rid of a political rival. The speaker did time in federal prison for failing to pay taxes on the "consulting fees" he charged companies that wanted favorable action on certain legislation.

How sleazy can Florida politics get? A study released last year found that, from 2000 to 2010, Florida led all the other states in total convictions of officials and staff who broke federal public corruption laws. Our tally of 781 beat the three more populous states of California, Texas and New York.

This is nothing new. When I was a kid, my dad — a painfully honest man — served briefly as a low-level county official. During election season he would take me to political rallies and point out people in the crowd and then explain to me such terms as "bag man" and "nepotism" and "high-functioning alcoholic." It was a far different civics lesson from what I'd seen on Schoolhouse Rock.

On the other hand, Florida's politicians tend to be far more entertaining than the duly elected dullards elsewhere. One recent candidate for mayor of North Miami contended she had been the target of voodoo intimidation and that she'd been endorsed by Jesus. (She lost.) Our most recent lieutenant governor resigned abruptly in March after investigators questioned her about her connections to a company running an illegal gambling ring. She promptly landed a new job with a company making grenade launchers.

Florida history is replete with wacky pols. Gov. John Milton was so distressed by the South losing the Civil War that he killed himself. U.S. Sen. Charles W. Jones abandoned his duties in Congress in midterm to stalk a woman in Detroit and deliver speeches to his mirror.

In Florida, no party holds exclusive rights to wackiness. Republican Gov. Claude Kirk brought to his inauguration a woman he would identify only as "Madame X." (They later wed.) Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles celebrated his second inauguration by firing a potato gun at the governor's mansion.

The topper, though, is preacher-turned-insurance salesman Sidney J. Catts. He campaigned for governor in 1916 with a pair of six-shooters strapped to his hips, bragging that he was the target of an assassination plot by the Catholic Church. He'd bellow to the cheering crowds: "The Florida crackers have only three friends: God Almighty, Sears Roebuck and Sidney J. Catts!" He won election as a Prohibition Party candidate, then got in trouble for appointing all his cronies and family members to state jobs. He was indicted on charges of taking payoffs in exchange for pardoning inmates but was acquitted. Just before he died, he beat a charge of aiding a counterfeiting ring amid testimony that he routinely concealed $5,000 in his shoes.

Compared to Catts, today's pols look a little pale. Our current governor, Rick Scott, had a little trouble with his dog and once took the Fifth Amendment 75 times during a deposition in a civil case, but otherwise he's about as exciting as drying cement. Still, there is one Florida officeholder today who stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of ... well, let's call it individuality.

I'm referring to state wildlife commissioner "Alligator" Ron Bergeron. He's a sixth-generation Floridian who's the perfect representative of the contradictions that make Florida so fascinating. He's a major paving contractor and developer who relishes a chance to wade into the Everglades and point out to visitors all the natural beauty found there. He's a wealthy businessman who also happens to be a rodeo champ. He's usually wearing a Texas-size cowboy hat and a big, shiny belt buckle. But my favorite fact about him is how he got his nickname.

In 2006, Bergeron was giving visitors a tour of his 5,000-acre Hendry County ranch when he spotted an alligator sunning itself near a pond. Although the gator appeared to be at least 7 feet long, Bergeron "demonstrated what he called 'an old cracker tradition' to his guests" and "began to wrestle with the alligator," an investigator from the state wildlife commission later wrote.

The gator wrapped its tail around Bergeron's leg, rolled him into the water, bit his hand, "and proceeded to take him to the bottom of the pond," the official report on the incident says. "Bergeron stated he began to strike the alligator on the nose as he was taught as a boy, several times." When the gator at last let go, Bergeron swam to the surface and went to a nearby hospital, where he needed lots of stitches.

Not long afterward, his hand still bandaged, Bergeron was standing in a line at the White House to meet President George W. Bush. The president asked what happened to his hand. Bergeron said, "I was rassling an alligator."

The president, leaning close, said, "You're kidding, right?"

Here's the best part of the story, though: State law forbids attempting to molest or capture an alligator without a permit. Bergeron had given a state investigator a full and candid statement about jumping on the animal. He had stitches and a bandage on his hand. He'd even confessed to the president of the United States. But when the investigator met with prosecutors, they declined to pursue the case because, the investigator wrote, "there was not enough evidence."

You can read the rest of Pittman's Slate blogs about Florida at tampabay.com/florida or slate.com/authors.craig_pittman.html.

© 2013 Slate

Florida — not a pretty picture 07/13/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 12, 2013 5:22pm]

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